Harmonographs Generate Geometric Images Unique as Fingerprints

When my elder brother and I were kids back in the late 1970’s, our hacker Dad showed us this 1960-61 catalog of the Atlas Lighting Co (later Thorn Lighting) with an interesting graphic design on the cover. He told us to do a thought experiment, asking us to figure out how it would be possible to have a machine that would draw the design on that catalog cover.

Incorrectly, our first thought was that the design was created with a Spirograph. A spirograph has two main parts: a large ring with gear teeth on the inside and outside circumferences and a set of smaller, toothed wheels with holes in them for inserting a drawing instrument — usually a ball point pen. You hold the big ring, insert the pen in the smaller wheel, and then mesh and rotate the smaller wheel around the big ring. But spirographs can’t be used to draw irregular, asymmetrical figures. You could always recreate a design. Because of the nature of gears, none of them were unique, one off, designs.

A spirograph set like this cannot make the image above[Image credit: Multicherry CC-BY-SA 3.0]
A spirograph set like this cannot make the image above [Image credit: Multicherry CC-BY-SA 3.0]
We figured adding some lever arms, and additional geared wheels (compound gears) could achieve the desired result. It turns out that such a machine is called a Cycloid Drawing Machine. But even with this kind of machine, it was possible to replicate a design as often as required. You would fix the gears and levers and draw a design. If the settings are not disturbed, you can make another copy. Here’s a video of a motorized version of the cycloid machine.

The eventual answer for making such designs was to use a contraption called as the harmonograph. The harmonograph is unique in the sense that while you can make similar looking designs, it would be practically impossible to exactly replicate them — no two will be exactly the same. This thought experiment eventually led to my brother building his own harmonograph. This was way back when the only internet we had was the Library, which was all the way across town and not convenient to pop in on a whim and fancy. This limited our access to information about the device, but eventually, after a couple of months, the project was complete.

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T-Rex Runner Runs on Transistor Tester

If you’ve ever spent time online buying electronic doodads — which would mean almost all of us — then sooner or later, the websites get wind of your buying sprees and start offering “suggested” advertisements for buying more useless stuff. One commonly offered popular product seems to be a universal component tester, often referred to as a “Mega328 Transistor Tester Diode Triode Capacitance ESR Meter”. These consist of an ATmega328, an SPI LCD display, a Button, a ZIF socket and a few other components. Almost all of them are cheap clones of the splendid AVR-TransistorTester project by [Markus Frejek]. [Robson Couto] got one of these clone component testers, and after playing with it for a while, decided to hack it and write a T-Rex runner game for it.

The T-Rex runner game is Chrome’s offering for you to while away your time when it can’t connect to the internet. It needs just one button to play. This is just the kind of simple game that can be easily ported to the Component Tester. The nice take away from [Robson]’s blog post is not that he wrote a simple game for an ATmega connected to an LCD display, but the detailed walk through he provides of the process which can be useful to anyone else wanting to dip their feet in the world of writing games.

After a bit of online sleuthing and some multimeter testing, he was able to figure out that the LCD controller chip was connected to Port D of the ATmega, which meant the use of software SPI via bit-banging. He then looked inside the disassembled firmware to find writes to Port D to figure out pin assignments. Of course not long after all this work he found a config.h file with the pin mappings.

Armed with this information he was able to use the Adafruit ST7565 library to drive the LCD, but not before having to flip the image. The modified fork of his ST7565 library is available on GitHub. His game code is also available, but reading through the development process is pretty interesting. Check out a video of the Runner game in action after the break.

In an earlier post, we did a product review of one of these cheap Transistor Testers, and if you have one of these lying around, give [Robson]’s game a spin — it could be handy while you wait for your reflow oven to finish its soldering cycle.

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Decimal Oscilloclock harks back to 1927 movie

Metropolis is a classic, silent film produced in 1927 and was one of the very first full length feature films of the science fiction genre, and very influential. (C-3PO was inspired by Maria, the “Machine human” in Metropolis.) Within the first couple of minutes in the film, we get to see two clocks — one with a 24-hour dial and another larger one with a 10-hour dial. The human overlords of Metropolis lived a utopian 24 hour day, while the worker scum who were forced to live and work underground, were subjected to work in two ten-hour shifts during the same period.

[Aaron]’s client was setting up a Metropolis themed man-cave and commissioned him to build a Metropolis Oscilloclock which would not only show the 24 hour and 10 hour clocks from the film, but also accurately reproduce the clock movements and its fonts. [Aaron]’s Oscilloclock is his latest project in the series of bespoke CRT clocks which he has been building since he was a teen.

The clock is built around a Toshiba ST-1248D vintage oscilloscope that has been beautifully restored. There are some modern additions – such as LED glow indicators for the various valves and an external X-Y input to allow rendering Lissajous figures on the CRT. He’s also added some animations derived from the original poster of the film. Doing a project of this magnitude is not trivial and its taken him almost eight months to bring it from concept to reality. We recommend looking through some of his other blog posts too, where he describes how oscilloclocks work, how he builds the HV power supplies needed to drive the CRT’s, and how he ensures vibration and noise damping for the cooling fans used for the HV power supplies. It’s this attention to detail which results in such well-built clocks. Check out some of [Aaron]’s other awesome Oscilloclock builds that we have featured over the years.

The film itself has undergone several restoration attempts, with most of it being recovered from prints which were discovered in old archives. If you wish to go down that rabbit hole, check out Wikipedia for more details and then head over to YouTube where several versions appear to be hosted.

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Homemade Subaru Head Unit is Hidden Masterpiece

The Subaru BRZ (also produced for Toyota as the GT86) is a snappy sportster but [megahercas6]’s old US version had many navigation and entertainment system features which weren’t useful or wouldn’t work in his native Lithuania. He could have swapped out the built in screen for a large 4G Android tablet/phone, but there’s limited adventure in that. Instead, he went ahead and built his own homemade Navigation system by designing and integrating a whole bunch of hardware modules resulting in one “hack” of an upgrade.

The system is built around a Lenovo 4G phone-tablet running android and supporting GPS, GLONASS as well as the Chinese BeiDou satellite navigation systems. He removed the original daughter board handling the USB OTG connection on the tablet, and replaced it with his version so he could connect it to his external USB board via a flat ribbon cable. The USB board contains a Cypress 4-port USB hub. One port is used as the USB HID device to allow external buttons for system control — Power, Volume Up/Down, Fwd/Rev, Play/Pause, and Phone Answer/Hangup. The second port is used as a regular USB input to allow connecting external devices such as flash drives. The third one goes to a reversing camera while the fourth port goes to a USB DAC.

The USB DAC is another hardware board by itself and also includes a Bluetooth module which integrates his phone’s audio and control functions with the on-board system. There’s also an audio mixer which allows him to use the phone audio without having to miss out on the navigation prompts from the tablet. Both boards also contain several peripheral circuits such as amplifiers and DC power supplies. Audio to the speakers is routed through six LM3886 based power amplifier boards. And the GPS module receives its own special low-noise amplifier board to ensure extremely strong reception at all times. That’s a total of ten boards custom built for this project. He’s also managed to source all the original harness connectors so his system is literally a snap in replacement. The final assembly looks pretty dashing.

For some strange reason, the Lenovo tablet uses 4.35V as the ‘fully charged” value for its LiPo instead of the more common 4.20V, so even with the whole system connected to a hefty 12V lead acid battery from which he’s deriving the 4.20V charging voltage for the tablet, it still complains about “low battery” — and he’s looking for advice on how he can resolve that issue short of blowing up the LiPo by using the higher charge voltage. Besides that, he’s (obviously a kickass) hardware designer and a little bit rusty on the software and programming side of things, for which he’s looking for inputs from the community. His introductory video is almost 30 minutes long, but the shorter demo video after the break shows the system after installation in his car. He’s posted all of his Altium hardware source files on the project page, but until he shares PDF versions, it would be difficult for most of us to look at his work.

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Taking Apart a Vintage Oscilloscope

After getting a power supply and a multimeter, the next piece of gear a hacker would want to add to their bench is the oscilloscope. Nowadays, even the cheapest ones cost a few hundred dollars yet pack in the features. At the other end of the scale, if you can pony up close to a  million dollars, you can help yourself to an oscilloscope capable of 100 GHz bandwidth and 240 GS/s sampling rate. With that perspective, it becomes interesting to take a look at this video (embedded below), where [Jack Ganssle] shows us the Philco 7019 Junior Scope which was introduced way back in 1946. It seems the Philco 7019 model was an identical re-badged version of the Waterman Model S-10-A PocketScope.

[Jack] is familiar to all of us as an embedded systems engineer, but in this video he does a teardown of this vintage analog model. He starts off by walking us through the various controls, of which there are not a lot, in this “portable” instrument. At around the 3:40 mark in the video, he’ll make you wince as he uses a screwdriver and hammer combo to smash another ’40’s vintage CRT just so he can show us it’s innards — the electron beam source and the horizontal and vertical deflection plates. The circuit is about as bare-bones as it can get. Besides the CRT, there are just three vacuum tubes. One is the rectifier for the power supply, a second one is used for the vertical amplifier while the third one is the free running horizontal sweep oscillator. There is no triggering option — you just adjust the sweep frequency via a potentiometer as best you can. It does have internal, external and line frequency function selection, but it still requires manual adjustment of the sweep oscillator. There’s no blanking signal either, so the return sweep is always clearly visible. This is evident from the horizontal burn mark on the phosphor of the CRT after decades of use. It’s amusing to see that the vertical position could be adjusted by moving a magnet attached to the side cover.

The Oscilloscope Museum website hosts the Instruction Manual for this model, as well as a sales brochure which makes for very interesting reading after viewing [Jack]’s video.

Thanks, [Itay], for the tip.

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Dummies Guide to Reverse Engineering

[Juan Carlos Jiménez] has reverse engineered a router — specifically, a Huawei HG533. While that in itself may not sound substantial, what he has done is write a series of blog posts which can act as a great tutorial for anyone wanting to get started with sniffing hardware. Over the five part series, he walks through the details of identifying the hardware serial ports which open up the doors to the firmware and looking at what’s going on under the hood.

The first part deals with finding the one or several debug ports on the hardware and identifying the three important pins – Rx, Tx and GND. That’s when he shows novices his first trick – shining a flashlight from under the PCB to find the pins that have trace connections (most likely Rx and Tx), those that don’t have any connections (most likely CTS and DTR) and those that have connections to the copper pour planes (most likely VCC and GND). The Tx signal will be pulled up and transmitting data when the device is powered up, while the Rx signal will be floating, making it easy to identify them. Finding the Baud rate, though, will require either a logic analyser, or you’ll have to play a bit of a guessing game.

Once you have access to the serial port and know its baud rate, it’s time to hook it up to your computer and use any one of the several ways of looking at what’s coming out of there — minicom, PuTTY or TeraTerm, for example. With access to the devices CLI, and some luck with finding credentials to log in if required, things start getting interesting.

Over the next part, he discusses how to follow the data paths, in this case, looking at the SPI signals between the main processor and the flash memory, and explaining how to use the logic analyser effectively and decode the information it captures. Moving further, he shows how you can hook up a USB to SPI bridge, connect it to the flash memory, take a memory dump of the firmware and read the extracted data. He wraps it up by digging in to the firmware and trying to glean some useful information.

It’s a great series and the detailed analysis he does of this particular piece of hardware, along with providing a lot of general tips, makes it a perfect starting point for those who need some help when getting started on debugging hardware.

Thanks, [gnif] for posting this tip.

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Cheap LCD TV gets cheaper fix

Most hacks need some fair bit of skill and knowledge if you want to come out successful at the other end. Others, you just plunge in blindly with a “heck, it’s already broken so I can’t make it any worse” attitude. Throwing caution to the wind, you dive in, rip things up, and see if you can manage to catch the bull by the horns.

[Jim]’s cheap LCD TV, barely a few years old, died. It was purchased from the store whose blue polo-shirted cashiers can drive you nuts with their incessant questions. [Jim] just rolled up his sleeves and rather haphazardly managed to fix his TV while adding an extra feature along the way.

His initial check confirmed that the LCD panel worked. Using a flashlight, he could see that the panel was displaying video which meant it was the backlight that wasn’t working. Opening up the TV, he located the LED driver board whose output turned out to be zero volts. [Jim] happened to have a lot of WS2812B strips lying around, along with their power supplies and RGB color controllers. The obvious solution was to ditch the existing LEDs and power supply and use the WS2812B strips.

Surprisingly, the original backlight consisted of just 21 LEDs arranged in three rows. He ripped those out, put in the WS2812B strips, and taped the jumble of wires out of sight. After putting it back together, [Jim] was happy to see it worked, although the new strips were not as bright as the old ones, causing some uneven light bands. He solved this by adding a few more strips of LEDs. It took him a couple of hours to fix his TV, but by the end of it, he had a TV whose backlight could be adjusted to any color using the external color controllers — although we’re not too sure what good that would be.